Review: NHL '06 and NBA Live '06

Do new annual versions of popular sports games offer anything new? Review of NHL and NBA Live '06.

NHL 06 (photo credit: )
NHL 06
(photo credit: )
When a new version of a computer game is released like clockwork every year, it's legitimate for would-be purchasers to demand that it offer much more than the previous rendition. For more than a decade, EA Sports has issued annual upgrades of its basketball, football, ice hockey and other sports programs, charging about $40 to $50 each. Are the new editions worth the money or does having the latest versions merely give you the chance to brag about your purchase to fellow fanatic friends? The NBA disk, highlighted by a photo of Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade on the cover, is not light years ahead of NBA Live 05, but it does offer some improvements. There are 41 teams, including All Star groupings from each decade since the 1950s (it's very odd that EA Games left out Michael Jordan, but other classic players such as Dr. J. are there). A Superstars option offers players the distinct characteristics of a Highflyer, Playmaker, Scorer, Sharpshooter, Stopper and Power Player. The Dynasty mode turns gamers into general managers in charge of staff before you play the games. Take your rookie player and turn him into a Superstar or take control of a franchise by drafting assistants, trainers and scouts to assist in player development. In the open court, Freestyle Superstars reach a high level with an enhanced transition game. Use a gamepad if you have one, as it is much more effective at maneuvering players than the keyboard. Just like last year, the new version has a create-a-player option. The new graphics engine is better than '05's but not sensational: Players seem to have apathetic expressions on their faces most of the time, and while their heads look very much like their portraits, their bodies seem to look the same, as if produced by a cookie cutter. Instead of running in short, choppy steps, players tend to look as if they're gliding on ice rather than a basketball court. Fans in the first two rows of the stadium are three-dimensional humans, but those farther back are only two-dimensional clones. However, players' uniforms are more detailed than before. Besides noise from the crowd, the soundtrack offers music, mostly of the hip-hop variety, that you might want to tune out to concentrate on the game. The National Hockey League upgrade - featuring Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning on the cover - offers some new features, but while it plays a good game of ice hockey, in general it seems to be a regression compared to NHL 05. The enhancements over the previous version are inconspicuous and don't justify calling it "new and improved." For example, a player's speed and size now affect his momentum and turning radius: Generate momentum to initiate speed bursts and fly past your opponents. You can customize players and "decorate" them with a scar, black eye or broken nose to scare your opponents, but while body animations are very good, facial expressions are sometimes quite unnatural. The IQ level of the game's artificial intelligence has not been advanced very much; but the lights do reflect realistically off the ice, thanks to a good graphics engine. Here, too, having a gamepad for maneuvering players is really mandatory. A variety of rock music overwhelms sound effects in the stadium, which are not sensational, and the announcers' ongoing commentary quickly becomes tedious. Unlike in the NBA, hockey games can be quite violent (although bloodless), so NHL 05 is designated for a slightly older group of children through adults. If you have the 2004 or 2005 versions of these two games, the decision to buy the latest ones depends on whether you are a fervent a fan and if you have some spare cash. If the answer to both is no, then enjoy what you have and wait for next year. NBA Live 06, two CD-ROMs in English by EA Sports, distributed with an 18-page Hebrew-language user's manual by Hed Artzi Multimedia, requires Windows XP and a 1.06 gigahertz Pentium III PC or better, for ages seven through adult, NIS 200. Rating: **** 1/2 NHL 06, a DVD-ROM in English by EA Sports, distributed with a 14-page Hebrew-language user's manual by Hed Artzi Multimedia, requires Windows XP and a 1 gigahertz Pentium III PC or better, for ages 10 through adult, NIS 200. Rating: *** 1/2